Along with a group of local college students, I recently attended a screening of the documentary "Relentless." Reactions to the flick, which makes a cinematic argument for Israel's side in the conflict with the Palestinians, were mixed. But one comment stuck.
Responding to scenes that depicted the reactions of Palestinians to the Sept. 11 attacks and to terrorist atrocities committed against Israelis by their fellow Arabs, a Jewish student said she was appalled by the use of these images.
For her, the footage of the celebrations of a Palestinian mob in October 2000 following their lynching of two unarmed Israeli reservists was "dehumanizing" to Arabs.
Saying that were she a Palestinian, she would have been made uncomfortable by the film, the student asserted that there was nothing to be gained by the publication of these images, let alone that they be used for polemical purposes.
It was an honest reaction, but it also said a lot more about her politics she was a keen critic of Israeli policies than about the rights and wrongs of printing inflammatory photos of film footage.
How much should we see?
And that's the crux of much of the debate about just how much play news organizations should give controversial pictures from Iraq, whether of the mutilation and murder of American civilians or the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
How far should we go in showing these images?
In each case, ethical concerns compete with the political advantages that the pictures may confer on different sides of the argument. One picture may or may not be worth a thousand words. But for President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, the question of how many thousands or millions of votes will be won by the photos that have come to define the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq is a serious business.
Can the pictures of the Americans murdered, mutilated and then strung up in Falluja deepen the resolve of Americans to persevere in the fight in Iraq? Or do such pictures sicken people to the point where they are no longer willing to shed blood or treasure in the effort to create an Iraq that is not run by killers associated with Saddam Hussein's regime or to Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda?
In the same vein, the pictures of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers have also been seen as a potential catastrophe for the Bush administration.
Predictably some of those who argued for wider publication of the prisoner-abuse photos were reluctant to show those of the murder of Americans. The willingness of some journalists to give more space to one story than another says a lot about their opinions about Bush and the war. As in all political questions, where you sit depends on where you stand.
And then there was the video shown on an Islamist Web site depicting the horrifying murder of Nicholas Berg. This case highlights the fact that there is something else at play here. More important than the temporary advantages to be gained for partisans is the matter of respecting the dignity of the victims.
If every American spent time watching the Islamist snuff film that Berg's murderers posted, it might have some impact on their opinion about the cause of creating a terrorist-free Iraq.
IMAGES OF DEATH
But do Nick Berg and his grieving family deserve to have his death agonies fully exhibited on CNN or Fox News?
As much as it is the duty of the news media to honestly portray to the best of our ability the true story of Iraq, don't we also have an obligation to treat the victims with a degree of derech eretz respect that their killers didn't give them? His murderers may have gloried in showing Berg's dying moments and his battered remains, but should we be complicit in their sick exhibitionism?
Nor am I particularly eager to publish photos of members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad holding up pieces of Israeli soldiers they had slain as trophies, as they did last week on Palestinian television. In that case, where does the right of the people of Israel to know that their foes did such things figure into our complex equation?
It is instructive to remember that this is, after all, not a new debate. Historians have struggled with the same sort of dilemmas when it comes to publishing photos from the Holocaust. There is no shortage of horrifying pictures of the Nazis torturing and slaying Jews. We need to be confronted with the truth of these crimes. But must we strip these men, women and children of their modesty all over again by exhibiting them in their vulnerability and nakedness?
It is an unpleasant sensation to realize that such trophy photos taken by Nazi tormentors bear a strange resemblance to the Arab murder videos, as well as the snapshots taken by the disgraceful Americans who humiliated their Iraqi victims.
We need to see these things but we must always look at them with hesitancy lest they become a form of pornography. We must be equally vigilant in opposing those who would suppress certain images merely to preserve their illusions about the perpetrators or for political gain.
As much as I think that the dignity of the victims must be respected, I'm not particularly interested in sparing the feelings of those, like my student friend, who think that showing images of killers and their sympathizers "dehumanizes" them.
If there is any degradation going on in footage of those who celebrate death or glory in the humiliation of others, it is they who are degrading themselves. If this is the sort of thing that gains terrorist groups greater support from ordinary Palestinians, as the evidence seems to indicate, then that is exactly the sort of information journalists have an obligation to bring before the public.
Just as Americans must be aware of criminal behavior on the part of some of our soldiers, so, too, must we not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the war being waged against us both here and in Israel by Islamic terrorists isn't real. These are hard pictures to look at, but look at them we must if we wish to see the truth about the world in which we live.